Saturday, May 14, 2022

Red Nails

I don't read much fiction, but someone recently pointed out that several of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories are available for free from Project Gutenberg.  I had previously read The Hour of the Dragon, the most-downloaded of the lot, and found it alright but not great.  The seams of the serial structure in which it was originally published showed through pretty hard.  The next most-read on Gutenberg was Red Nails.

I enjoyed Red Nails quite a bit (with the usual caveats about '30s pulp fiction), but more important, this is really good inspiration for old-school style dungeoncrawls.  Without spoiling anything, there's a multi-level dungeon with competing factions, and those factions aren't monolithic, precisely in the way that dungeon factions are talked about in the OSR blogosphere.  There are also a couple neat ideas for magic items and dungeon set dressing pieces.  The dungeon bits of Hour of the Dragon don't hold a candle to this.

The Appendix N entry for Howard doesn't call out particular Conan stories, but I have to imagine that if it did, this one would've made the cut.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Market Availability and Diminishing Returns

Status: speculative proposal

From another of Rick Stumps' posts that I enjoyed:

Most of the light sources in the Mountain ended up being torches, then candles because they bought all the oil in the region and the few torch makers couldn't keep up with demand. Food prices in Esber skyrocketed because they bought all the smoked ham, salted fish, and cheese to be had for ever-increasing prices. They also stripped the area of oats and sheep tallow, making the local favorite breakfast (unleavened oatcakes fried in sheep tallow) rare and angering many...

The party also hired factors (merchants that buy and sell for you) in 5 towns and cities, bought an inn within Esber as a base and storehouse; met with the local Baron and Bishop to smooth things over  with them, and; gave generously to the poor affected by the lack of food...

If I simply said, "Don't worry about food, water, light, or time. Let's just play." None of that happens. They don't have ties to NPC factors in five towns and cities (that have already triggered 3 more adventures), no meeting with the baron and bishop, no interaction with farmers, or the beggars, no long argument with the muleskinners about if they should get paid as much as light infantry if they also fought the kobolds, no stash of 3,000 gp worth of gear on Level Three, none of it.

Obviously, any ACKS enthusiast is on board with limiting the amount of stuff available for purchase in a market every month.  But except for mercenaries, there isn't really a system for having prices rise as a result of buying up particular goods.  What would such a system look like, with a minimum of book-keeping?

ACKS' equipment availability table is a reasonable starting point for availability without any price increase.  Just at a wag, after buying all normal availability for the month, we might let players roll availability again, but now the goods cost twice as much per unit.  Then triple, then quadruple, up to a hard cap of say x10 (one of ACKS' underlying assumptions is that adventurers generally only have access to about 1/10th of the market).  The next month, take the highest multiple paid for a particular good, decrease it by 1, and that's the new starting multiple.

For example,


A mule is 20gp.  A class 4 market has one of each item between 11gp and 100gp per month.  So the first mule costs 20 gp.  The second mule costs 40 gp, the third 60, etc.  The party ends up buying 5 mules for a total price of 300gp - which would've been enough to buy 15 mules if they hadn't been in a hurry.  Next month, they return to the same market and a mule still costs 80gp, and even if price were no object, only six can be bought (at 4x, 5x, 6x, ... 10x the normal price).

One wrinkle here is substibility of goods.  If the party buys up the entire stock of plate mail and drives the price through the roof, people who would buy plate are going to buy banded mail instead, and smiths who would make banded are going to make plate instead, and prices for banded are going to rise too.  So it might make sense to put goods in buckets, and raise prices for the whole bucket.  In Rick's example, "food" is the bucket.  But on the other hand, a lot of goods aren't really substible; a light riding horse and a medium riding horse fill quite different needs, even though they're both mounts.  So maybe it isn't worth worrying about - the players themselves are likely to think hard about substituting banded mail for plate when it's a quarter the price.

Open questions:

Is it worth it to track price multiples across months?  Should the multiple decline differently based on how "connected" the market is to trade networks?  Is linear price growth right, or should be it exponential or something?  How do price multiples interact with hiring henchmen?  Could switching to per-season availability or something lessen the book-keeping here?  Is this competitive with just commissioning goods (the stock ACKS way to circumvent market limits)?  How does the venturer interact with this (maybe he just gets you access to extra goods at one lower price multiplier)?  Heuristics for effects of standing price multiples on domain morale, or a system for having them queue trouble?

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Seasonal Overland Travel Times

I stumbled upon Rick Stump's blog recently.  There's a lot of good stuff here!  There was a line from this post that got me thinking:

This means that if there is a good road directly between me and, oh, the market 8 miles away if I leave at sunrise (call it 6:30) and want to return home by sunset (call it 8:45) [I am using the sunrise/set times for Seaward for this time of year] then I wouldn't get to the market until about 9:30 and need to leave by 5:45.

As I've noted elsewhere [2], I'm always looking for more ways to inject seasonality into the wilderness game.  And varying travel per day with available daylight makes a lot of sense!  Taking fall and spring with ~12 hours of daylight per day as your baseline, we'd see negligible seasonal change in available travel time per day in the tropics, but even as far south as Miami, the shortest day of the year is 10 and a half hours, while the longest is around 13 and a half.  So that's a difference of 12.5%, an eighth.  Up here the shortest day of the year is around 8 and a half hours, while the longest is more like 15 and a half.  So just on the basis of having more or less daylight, something like a 30% reduction in overland travel rate in the winter and a 30% increase in the summer would be reasonable at these latitudes.  Dealing with modifying travel speed by an eighth might not be worth the hassle, but 30% certainly seems big enough to warrant consideration!  For latitudes somewhere in between Miami and Seattle, something like a 20 or 25% modifier might be reasonable and fairly easy on the math.

And then if you're already figuring seasonal overland travel speed modifiers for daylight, you could also just abstract weather into that modifier, especially if operating on scales of weeks.

One could also make the slower (winter) speed the default, and then scale everything else up accordingly, since multiplying is easier than dividing.

(Granted - this ignores historical details like the afternoon halt during summer marches.  Maybe the difference between getting 12 hours of rest in the dark and getting eight at night in the summer plus four in the middle of the day doesn't work out to that big a difference in practice.  Maybe it makes sense as just a winter penalty, where your time to break and make camp cuts into your marching daylight time.  And then there are those rascals with infravision mucking things up as usual...)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Senryu Backstories

How much backstory is too much backstory?  Especially in OSR games, where characters are likely to die at low levels?

I had been kicking around a proposal like "six words per level of experience", but an amusing idea occurred to me this morning.

Senryu is a form of Japanese poetry with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables (er...  technically morae, but trying to write english within mora counts that tight is not practical), typically about people and their vices (vs haiku, which are about nature and must include a season-word and a cutting-word).  They're pretty easy to put together and give you enough room to tell a little story that explains why you're adventuring without going into too much detail:

Orcs killed my parents
Shoulders that once pulled a plow
now carry plate mail

Chased too much elf tail
Washed out of wizard college
Student loans comes due

On long pilgrimage
Red-nosed cleric lost his way
Time to pay the tab

Won fast ship at cards
Dumped hot goods, now owe crime lord
When in doubt, shoot first

Rightful king of dwarves
Dragon haunts my father's halls
I will get what's mine.

Our lands disputed,
King turned 'gainst us, brother slain,
I sailed for far shores

One nice property of these, I think, is that it would get really hard to fit proper nouns with relations into them.  If you take a backstory senryu as canon, it might tell you that somewhere in the setting there are marauding orcs, a wizard college, a crime lord, or a dragon under the mountain, but it doesn't try to shove them into any particular place.  As a DM, it would be easy to link these up to any particular band of orcs, wizard college, crime lord, or fallen hold that you might already have planned.

And they're quick and fun to come up with, which makes them a relatively good fit for characters who might be short-lived.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Grim Dawn's Dungeon Blockers and Ye Olde Evil Doors

Grim Dawn does a couple of things in its dungeon that are sometimes annoying but fundamentally clever.  There are no randomly-generated maps in Grim Dawn.  The closest thing is a randomly-generated infinite dungeon, but each level is drawn from a pool of fixed level maps.  Given that a typical character runs through all of the campaign content in the game several times, in the traditional Diablo model, one would expect players to develop highly-efficient routes through the campaign area maps.

In order to prevent these repeatedly-traversed campaign zones from becoming stale without having to resort to random generation (with the difficulties that that would entail, like nonsensical outputs), the Grim Dawn devs have put places on some maps (mostly dungeons and towns, but a few wilderness areas) where random blockers can appear.  Piled of burning garbage, doorways that are full of rocks, that sort of thing.  They have the potential to appear in a fairly small number of carefully-selected spots in each dungeon, they're re-randomized per session (save and reload, basically, which also returns you to town), and generally you can't see them until you get fairly close to the spot they're blocking.  What all this means is that you can't consistently run optimal routes that you plan out before entering the dungeon.  There's a good chance that any such planned route will be blocked and you'll have to detour off it and then find a way back onto it, and your detour might also be blocked!  This means that finding paths remains gameplay even with hundreds of hours in the game and tens of runs through each area.  There are real choices and problem-solving in path-selection even when you have perfect knowledge of the unrandomized parts of the underlying level.  So despite having a constant underlying structure, navigating these areas remains engaging.

This seems like something which, obviously, could be adapted to OSR dungeons.  As DMs, we're under the same pressures to reuse content that Grim Dawn's devs were, and fully-procedural dungeons carry similar difficulties.  And it would be consistent with the No Homework ethos - no homework'd plan to traverse known parts of the dungeon will necessarily survive.  Reducing the rewards for homework is likely to reduce the amount of homework done.

Another clever, engaging thing that Grim Dawn does in its dungeons is find any excuse to have enemies "appear" in close proximity or behind you while you've engaged enemies in front of you.  Zombies, skeletons, and giant insects burrow out of the ground behind or around you.  Spiders drop from the ceiling.  Wraiths and outsiders materialize out of thin air.  Often these animations take long enough that if you're in motion, you can leave these appearing monsters in the dust and never have to deal with them.  This works great if you're running a nice planned path...  but when you run into a blocker and have to backtrack, or run into stern opposition, these guys can really catch up with you.  So blowing past them is a gamble, and they serve as a sort of potential energy mechanic.

But obviously, it would be silly to have goblins just appear out of nowhere near and behind you.  Unless...

Enter the much maligned stuck/evil door.  Obviously, goblins can come out of it on short notice!  And where better to place planned-path-breaking blockers than in doorways?  You could place your careful cut-points in hallways, but your dungeon already has all these doorways!  But it's not quite the same, because they're not blocked per-expedition, and a party can retry opening them.  Right?

Well...  not necessarily.  Looking at OD&D and the 1e DMG, it really isn't clear how long it takes to open a stuck/evil door, and doesn't explicitly say that it can be retried.  Not being able to retry forcing would give you a good reason to bring out the axes and exercise the door-breaking mechanic, so in a certain light the door-breaking mechanic's existence might be circumstantial evidence for rejecting retries on forcing doors.  And indeed there are apparently folks who play without permitting retries to open stuck doors - this post from Knight at the Opera, down in the "Dense Megadungeons" section, takes this position, and examines the effects on potential paths through the dungeon.  A door which the party failed to open on the first d6 roll was stuck closed to them for the rest of that expedition into the dungeon.  Knight at the Opera mapped out the paths that four expeditions had taken as a result of doors that they couldn't open.  Their patterns of exploration ended up deeper and more linear in structure than the patterns of dungeon exploration I'm used to seeing, because if they found a room with three doors, probably only one of them would open, so they explored where they were able, subject to door luck.  And obviously a door amenable to being opened by the party could then also be reopened within the same expedition (though it might require a roll that could be retried).

It's still not quite the same as Grim Dawn's dungeon blockers, but if you change the probabilities to something like 1 in 6 doors stuck (for the party) in any given expedition, I think you'd end up with a similar disruption of planned paths through explored areas and a similar excuse to have monsters sneak in behind parties, without wildly altering the pattern of exploration.  One complication is that you may want to leave all areas accessible during any given expedition, which could require sometimes rejecting a roll's result (if a stuck result would block the last path to an area).  But that's a rather principled sort of rejection of a random result, and one with good gameplay consequences (probably?).

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Productively Repressed Novelists

Executive summary: Write stories about things that have already happened in your world prior to the PCs' involvement.  Cut those stories into bite-sized chunks and scatter them around adventure sites for PCs to find.

I've been playing a lot of Grim Dawn recently.  Possibly an unreasonable amount.  It's an ARPG in a "Victorian+magic" setting that has recently had an apocalypse.  Grim Dawn's main story is...  thin.  It's kind of a checklist of "oh no we've discovered a new threat to the surviving humans", with occasional choices in how to handle humans you meet on the road.  Most of these choices are reducible with experience to their mechanical outcomes.  In practice it's an excuse to go interesting places, vaporize monsters, and take their stuff.  This is fine by me - never let a narrative get in the way of gameplay.

Where Grim Dawn succeeds at storytelling is in its lore notes.  You find them scattered around the world and they give you many more perspectives on that world.  The baddies plotting, your NPC allies realizing apocalypse is coming, refugees fleeing the capital, regular folks turning to dark powers to survive, stubborn farmers refusing to leave their land, a civilization collapsing to a previous apocalypse, all of this stuff that happened before the game starts is delivered to the player in written notes.  It's the polar opposite of the exposition-dump; rather than getting a single long, boring account of the world from a third-person narrator, it's delivered in bits and pieces by a multitude of (sometimes unreliable and conflicting) in-world sources.

Grim Dawn does a couple things here that might be worth noting and stealing for tabletop RPGs.  The first is that notes are short and often serialized.  Rather than dropping a 12-paragraph story on you, they'll cut it up into four notes each of three paragraphs and scatter them around an area.  When you find part three first and read it, and realize there's no closure, you know that there must be more before and after.  It encourages you to explore the world to find the rest of the series of notes.  It leaves gaps for you to speculate into - to imagine into.  You wouldn't just show them the map - don't just show them the full lore!  (Does it strain disbelief to have pages of a diary scattered over a half-acre?  Maybe.  Is it worth it?  Probably, I think)

Reading lore notes in Grim Dawn also gives you XP.  I don't know that this is quite the right thing for a game like D&D, but selling lore notes to an historian for GP, by which you earn XP?  Hell yeah.  Some players may be excited about finding lore for its own sake, some may need a more concrete reward, but as long as the table as a whole's reaction to finding a lore note is "score!" you're headed in the right direction.  Make finding them gameplay, and reward that gameplay.

Finally, Grim Dawn is never pushy with the lore notes.  When you mechanically "read" a lore note and get the XP, it gets copied into your quest log and remains available there.  Maybe you only have an hour to play tonight and you need to grab that next portal, so you're not doing any reading.  No worries, it'll be there next time when you've beaten the boss and are taking a breather in town to rebalance your gear.  This is kind of a confident move on Grim Dawn's part; when a game makes you sit through cutscenes and exposition, it is because they're worried about what will happen if you miss something.  Grim Dawn says "whatever man, if you miss a lore note or never get around to reading all the ones you do find, it's fine.  My core gameplay is strong enough to bear it."  Just so - don't read lore notes to your players like boxed text!  Pass them a paper copy and make the page on the campaign wiki visible to them.  If they want one guy to skim and summarize, fine!  If they want to read it aloud, fine!  If they just want to pass it to the one guy who cares about lore (who becomes the party archivist), fine!

Taken all together, Grim Dawn's approach to lore notes strikes me as an eminently appropriate attitude for lore-delivery in tabletop games, especially OSR games.  In exploration-driven games, it is a given that players will miss stuff - you have to be OK with that anyway.  In a game that keeps AD&D's apocalypse, having surviving lore in the written word rather than being able to ask people questions about the world makes sense.  And stories about the past of the world don't step on the toes of player agency; you can have your well-structured narratives and character development, just separated from your emergent narrative by time.

In conclusion: if you must novelize, OSR DMs, serial-novelize the history leading up to the PCs, not their current actions, and scatter your serial in adventure sites.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Everybody / Nobody is Wizards

 I was kicking around a setting pitch recently, something like

The fire from the sky has ceased, and the earth has mostly stopped shaking.  In the isolated hamlets and manors that escaped the destruction, peasants and nobles alike dare to hope that perhaps the Wizard War is at its end.  The ambitious wonder what treasures and lore lie ripe for the taking in ruined towers, while the wise worry what warbeasts and fell engines have yet to be released.

Such a setup seems like it would have some nice properties - it fits the post-apocalyptic assumptions of old-school D&D by making the apocalypse explicit.  It gives me a lot of liberty to place fantastical ruined environments and landscapes close to utterly mundane surviving settlements, rather than having to go hard on realism/consistency in my dungeons like I do in most ACKS campaigns or having to go interplanar like in the Rathell campaign.  It's a good excuse to not have any class I or II markets, which in turn prevents the accumulation of large numbers of spies to break hijinks, makes it hard to sell magic items, etc.  And it supports a rather Iron Heroes relationship between player characters / civilization and magic; magic can be rare and scary.

It got me thinking that maybe it would be interesting to treat magic user as a side-class.  It's not something you can start with; all the master wizards were involved in the Wizard War and are dead or worse.  You gotta go dig up a book and read it, and that lets you become a 1st-level wizard as a side class (and that book becomes your spellbook).  Then to advance further as a wizard, you reverse-engineer magic items, destroying them to gain XP.  It would be appropriate to have reading tomes grant XP, but then if you have multiple wizards in the party they could pass them around and that gets ugly - destroying items has a finality to it.  Plus you can get still new spells reading tomes, so it's not like books aren't useful.  And if you make reverse-engineering items take time (like a couple weeks in-game), then your wizards will have more down-time than your non-wizards and will end up with less adventuring XP in their main class, even though they're not actually splitting that earned XP between their classes.

And then because nobody likes wizards (not even other wizards!) you get a reaction roll penalty scaling up with level.

Practical complications here: no sleep to win hard fights for 1st level parties.  Need XP values for items.  If thief is a side-class and wizard is a side-class...  are you only left with fighter and cleric as your "base" classes?  Or do you make cleric also a side class (maybe that also gets XP for destroying "profane" magic items).  Do I want to deal with fighter/wizard/thieves or just limit to one side-class?  How does casting in armor work if every wizard is also a class that gets armor?  If you have a very limited set of base classes, what do you do with with stat-lines that have eg bad Str and bad Wis?